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See article in its original context here by Raymond Gill for Daily Review.

The Decorated Self is at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne until October 11.Picture of cabaret artist Moira Finucane with Kate Durham wearing Durham works courtesy of Janice Breen Burns

Before Kate Durham (pictured right) became an activist for refugees’ rights she was an artist.

In the 1980s her extravagant, bejewelled, and jumbled glass and plaster jewellery, head-pieces, drawings, paintings, sculptures, busts, mirrors, frames and even furniture, were in stark contrast to the dark minimalism creeping into every area of art, design and architecture.

Durham’s anti-fashion fashion with its shards, scraps, remnants and rubbish created a sort of urban tribalism. In the case of her jewellery, which she exhibited from Tokyo to New York to London, it seemed to demand a certain confidence, defiance or even contrariness of its wearer.

Since the late 1990s when she met the human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside (now her husband), she has been an activist for the rights of refugees attempting asylum in Australia. That too requires a confidence, defiance and contrariness as she (and he) front the apathy of many Australians and the chest-thumping fear mongering of conservative media and politicians.

After many years Durham has returned to jewellery making in an exhibition of 140 works titled “The Decorated Self” at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs gallery from tomorrow until October 11.

In notes for the show Durham writes:

“I return to jewellery in this exhibition, but it is a far cry from the exuberant and noisy youth I celebrated in the 1980s. My ‘grown up’ jewellery is just as talkative but the discourse may be better suited to women of a certain age and defiance.

“My work is still devoutly decorative and suspicious of the orthodoxies of ‘good design’ and its austerity, sobriety and minimalism. I believe these tendencies persist because of the work of envious men, who have for a couple of centuries been left out of the fun and love of the ‘shiny things’; the glittering stones, the dizzying transformations and the intricate and richly female world of fashion and jewellery.”

We asked Durham some questions about herself and her work.

Daily Review: Why so long since your last exhibition?

Kate Durham: My last show was 2011 at the Queensland State Library called “And every one was an optimist”. All of it was paintings and sculptures and refugees were the subject.

I made nothing for about ten years. I think I died from sorrow — the refugees made my work look silly. I did some work.  “Sewing all the way to here” was an exhibition of embroiderers, Afghan and CWA ladies. I got them to embroider pillows, because pillows offer rest and protection, if not a home. I painted the ladies. The were gracious and moving. Sad that their daughters were thriving, but not learning their mother’s beautiful skills.

If we only had one adjective to describe you would it be ‘artist’ or ‘activist’?

I evade the word artist (embarrasses me). I’d love to call myself a true activist but I wasn’t able to sustain the hurt and injury required. A Restless-ist, yeah that.

Can art achieve ends that discourse cannot?

Yes, and writers know that. Critics are always bossing artists to stay away from sentiment or polemics because images deployed for purposes outside art- making are so powerful they can put text in the shade.

Your last show in 2001 at Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne blended your art and your activism with miniature constructions of refugees’ boats. Did that work mean more to you than your jewellery work?

Not sure. They are all puzzles, and to get them right is the attraction.When they get a bit easy, I move on.

Did that sell as well as your body pieces?

I painted 357 panels to represent the drowned of the “Seiv X”,  but I had to paint more because they kept selling. But I’ve never had a sellout. I’d be happy to paint those drowned people for the rest of my life. I felt very tenderly about complete strangers. The process of painting imaginary souls seemed to guide me into someone else’s pain.

The crucifix works like that. Try it. Draw suffering and you will feel it. Empathy is wisely buried in all of us.

Is “The Decorated Self’’ a continuation of your previous jewellery works?

Yes, but I think it’s a bit more revealing of me. When I was 15 I decided my face was a dull blank so I filled it in. I decorate myself to amuse, interest, entertain anyone who is forced to look at me. Like my conversation –I try  to make an effort or contribution.

Should we really think of these pieces as decoration – are they armour as well?

Well, superficially yes, but I’m also more vulnerable with my cares, wares and ideas on display. They will not protect you .

Do you feel stronger when you wear one of your larger pieces?

Sometimes I feel smaller inside them.

Older women should “Go Big” for a lot of reasons.

1: They look better (trust me).

2: Older women are told to be more discreet –to the point of disappearance. Don’t let that happen: wear sleeves, dump the bikini, but make yourself a thing of visual interest.

My jewellery is not just striking and noisy. It repays a further look. It’s made in layers. It’s not graphic design nor is that my intention. Like the wearer, it should have something to say. Unlike most artists, I believe in beauty and attractiveness and I see no reason older women should be denied the pleasures of dress, embellishment, transformation or experiment. Barbara Cartland knew a thing or two: pearl is perfect for older skin, and I use tons of it.

3: Avoid beads — they are ageing, very shiny, glassy things that I made in the 80s and would be jarring on me now.

Are these pieces only meant for women?

Yes, why should we share our few prerogatives? But I like dandy men, too.

Have you designed any works for Julian to wear?

He is too shy. I put him in a few clothes some might think are a bit alarming. He spoiled my fun at our wedding. I wanted to make a grand be-medalled costume for him, but he was serious about marriage. I had to make a bow tie for him for Carrillo Gantner’s party. It was made out of rubbish but he looked pretty cute. He got to show off a bit.

You’ve made 140 pieces for this show. How long has that taken you?

Probably a year. Maybe more.

Where do you work?

My studio in the garden, when there aren’t concerts in it.

Do you have an assistant?

No, I had Lia Tabrah for the last two weeks to help me pull it all together. Hire her if you can. She was a perfect help-mate.

What materials and tools do you use?

Crude tools. I hate real jeweller’s materials because you have to be so mean with them. Materials are everywhere; I drag it all back to my cave.

Do you listen to music or radio while you work?

Radio. I had two exhibitions of radios that I made into working art (the best kind). They were all ON, making their little human voices heard. Purring and prattling on in the gallery. They just need an appearance — all appliances have nothing visual to say.

Do you tweet while you work?

No, sadly.

Has Twitter changed your life?

Twitter is radio perfected. All those little cries and shouts, jokes and Haiku– paradise — my next show might be about it. I love chat, condensed. People are so tragic and funny. We all want to communicate.


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